A submissive discussion is not an effective discussion. When the default tendency is to agree with what is being said, the discussion is probably a waste of time.
We all have experience with meetings that went south, where, at some point, everything started to be a cacophony of opinions and maybe even some dismissive and offensive statements. Such discussions are not only ineffective from a communication perspective; they are trust-killers in an environment where trust is the number one ingredient if you wish to achieve things as a group. The opposite of such a toxic meeting fueled with negative energy is not a quiet and submissive meeting, though; it is a respectful conversation. Unfortunately, many people confuse being respectful with a need to agree on everything upfront.
Challenging what is being said is often seen as disrespect. Some people feel that when their statements are being challenged, it means they are not trusted or not valued. Some people believe they are questioned instead of the content they deliver. When that is the underlying assumption, we must watch our steps with any question we ask and any challenge we pose. Many people will soon “get the message” and gradually stop challenging the content presented altogether. Your meetings will indeed become calmer on the surface. At the same time, they will become shallow and ineffective: they will not help you and your colleagues achieve your goals.
Communication is not a one-way street. We communicate to achieve things together. Effective communication is meant to support and promote a joint creation in which all of us bring value. We are not an audience; we are co-creators. And co-creators have the duty to challenge and question, not for the sake of argument or voicing their own opinions, but to help the team achieve better results. If we fail to create a setup in which people are expected to challenge and question everything, the discussion is probably unnecessary to begin with: it will end at the same point as it has started.
Effective communication doesn’t only allow challenging the information and insights shared with the group — it depends on it. When participating in a meeting, I assume I am invited to question what is being said and not automatically accept everything. I obviously don’t know better than everyone in the room, but by asking tough questions, we can collectively achieve better results than we would have otherwise.
The Value of Questioning (Everything)
Questioning the things you hear and see is a skill. It can start mechanically by forcing ourselves to ask questions even when things seem trivial. With time, though, we can master this skill and ask more challenging questions to help the team make discoveries and develop new insights.
For this to happen, everyone should be onboard and acknowledge the value of the questioning mindset.
From a Monologue to a Dialogue
When nothing is challenged or questioned, there’s no real conversation. What you get instead is a monologue or a set of dissociated monologues. Having a message you need to deliver to a group of people is a valid communication scenario, but it is in no sense a discussion. A discussion is never based on speeches.
Asking questions for the sake of clarification or better understanding is also not a real dialogue. If you don’t understand something someone said, you should, of course, ask for clarification before everyone moves forward and build on that idea. But that is not what we mean when we talk about questioning what is being said. Clarification questions don’t turn a monologue into a dialogue; they enable the audience to be aligned and follow the speaker’s lead. Challenging is designed to verify we are all on the right track.
A genuine dialogue is necessary for thinking together as a group. Without making space for doubt, verifying we are on the right path, and enabling the team to find better ones, our results will always be sub-optimal. That’s why we invite people for a discussion in the first place, and challenging the presented content is an essential tool for achieving that. Questioning data and insights enables a dialogue even if you don’t have an alternative idea. When done right, questioning is open-ended: it creates the opportunity for a dialogue and a collective discovery process.
New Insights and Discoveries
It is easy to get trapped in our own perspective. It is the most common and natural form of bias, but a great way to break free from it is by inviting people to challenge our view.
The point of challenging our perspective is not to prove us wrong (although it can certainly happen), nor is it to convince us that someone else is right. The goal of questioning is to open the door to new insights. Some insights may refine our understanding, while others can dramatically shift our perspective. It’s not an argument or debate but an act of replacing some exclamation marks with question marks.
Asking challenging questions is not a tactical move meant to slowly convince people that the perspective in question is wrong. It’s an honest, curious inquiry designed to refine our collective understanding. When asking a tough question, I rarely know the answer in advance. The collaborative processing of the question and coming up with an answer is where the actual value of posing a challenge lies. It introduces openness to the discussion, and often the answer surprises everyone, including the person raising the doubt.
Not any challenge will create a shift of perspective. Sometimes, the bottom line will be identical to the thesis we started with. Questioning that thesis is not a waste of time, even in these cases.
When people actively challenge the presented content, they feel part of the discussion and become more invested in its outcome. The alternative is to keep all these doubts to yourself. These doubts can only grow when kept in the dark. But when people feel free to share their doubts, and they are appropriately evaluated and addressed, they feel confident in whatever is decided in the discussion. They feel it was a collective decision, even if it is based on the original thesis presented.
Of course, this is not the goal of questioning but merely a potential result in some cases. When you invite people to challenge your perspective, you must be willing to address the tough questions and be ready to change your mind. If you are not honest about it and invite these challenges to tactically bring everyone on board, people will sense it, and you will achieve the opposite.